The New Intimacy Economy
Lately Facebook is getting a little too intimate with me. “Good morning, Leigh,” it coos. “Thanks for being here. We hope you enjoy Facebook today.” Then, like a slice of dystopian cafeteria lunch, it serves one of its abysmal “memories” into my feed, some forgotten years-old share, and when I tell it I don’t want to see that, Facebook scrapes apologetically: “We know we don’t always get it right.”
No, Facebook, of course you don’t. Remember how you started serving me wedding ads when I’d only just told one or two people I was engaged? That was creepy. Facebook is absolutely, indisputably creepy, a fungal colony of privacy violations fused helplessly to our human infrastructure. It spies on its employees and it demands pictures of our ID so it can regulate our names.
Everybody knows Facebook is creepy. Nonetheless, all this time it never occurred to me to delete my account until it began doing this: Trying to act like a person. Pretending we are on a first-name basis.
We often imagine the inevitable future tech dystopia will be cold, populations marching under the eye of sterile robot overlords, our speech monitored and scrubbed of sentiment and intonation. Increasingly, though, it seems like we’re hurtling toward the opposite: A singularity of smarm, where performative — maybe even excessive — intimacy is the order of the day.
Of course we don’t want creeper spy colony Facebook to be our friend. But creating the impression of intimacy is becoming increasingly crucial to the content economy today, and it’s happening everywhere. As the bottom plummets out of the advertising model and the “stuff Facebook with clickbait” approach begins to run out of rope, content creators — comedians, storytellers, critics, journalists — are striking out on their own and funding their work through alternative means, from crowdfunding to patronage and subscriptions.
In general, people seem more likely to pay for content when it’s “voiced”. In the era of YouTube stars, we expect to see faces. We want eye contact. Supermodels are born on Instagram, their reach and brand equity driven by passionate followers who “like” everything Cara Delevigne posts that she is doing. Examples of intimacy’s high valuation are everywhere, from Taylor Swift’s constant passel of best-best friends to Kim Kardashian pretending her daughter North “accidentally” posted a bikini selfie of Mom. She’s just like us! Anyone you admire starts to feel available to you via social media, and the more they cultivate that impression of a relationship, the better you, as a consumer, will perform.
Importantly, though, it’s not just celebrities who participate in the intimacy valuation market. My colleagues in the video games biz have developed their own subscription channels and platforms where they now make more money per video appealing directly to their fans than they would working for a traditional platform. Traditional channels cannot afford them. I’ve self-published books and stories directly to my readership that earned definitively more money than they would have through any traditional channel (assuming traditional channels would have even wanted them). We are all well aware that people are spending money because they like us, or some idea of us; they are spending in part because of the idea that they are engaged in a parasocial relationship with us.
We believe that on some level these relationships develop organically, and that they involve a component of sincerity. When I was targeted by an online hate group last year, sales of my little digital book — a relatively niche product, some personal writing related to a single video game conference — rocketed. Certainly it’s possible that the increased visibility caused by the episode naturally brought more interest in my work, but I think it’s more likely that by spending money on me, people felt they were fighting evil. It wasn’t entirely that they respected my writing or my opinion; they wanted to cheer on a public personality that they felt close to.
My social media feed is often flooded with “virtual hugs”, “high fives”, unasked-for encouragement, cheering-on and other variations on “you’re a badass female character”. People RT this article without reading it, because they trust me, and because they want to make me happy. Despite the trials of being a visible woman in a complicated field, I am actually pretty confident in myself, thanks, and it troubles me to be treated as a pal who needs a lot of slaps on the back from strangers. I’d like readers who respect my opinion, not wannabe friends who are seeking my acknowledgment or validation. But that’s just how things are nowadays. I am not special. I could be anyone. I’d prefer to make money because my work is good, not because people believe I need help or cheering-on, but I’ll take the money where it comes. Per-word rates are not what they used to be. Actually, I can’t remember the last time I was offered a per-word rate.
I had a “birthday sale” on my digital store recently. I was not above it. “It’s like you’re buying me a drink,” I told Twitter coyly. I did pretty well that day.
Pretending at closeness is really the only way forward for anyone who wants to make money on the internet. As such, watch as organizations pretend, with increasing intensity, that they are individuals. Start counting how many times platforms, services and websites entreat you in human voices, with awkward humor, for money. Watch as the things we expect to be invisible, utilitarian, start oozing emojis and winky-smileys. Even Silicon Valley, global epicenter of whitewashed empathy voids and 1-percenter sci-fi wank fantasies, is going to pretend it cares about you. Especially Silicon Valley. Ugh.
Your inbox is going to fill up with requests for professional favors from strangers who tell you they love you. They are not remotely your peers, but they’ll expect you to work for them anyway for exposure, for credit, for kudos, for ‘the community’. They add emojis for effect, too. Your feelings are now professional currency. Everyone who makes anything digital is monitoring the exchange rate to survive. Every content creator is now a community manager.
You live in a network of friends, likes, favorites, hearts and stars. The future is not a prison of robot overlords, but a Lucky Charms hell world stuffed with ‘plushies’ you backed on Kickstarter. Tell Your Story, Medium begs me in the field where I post this article. Please like and share this article. Please Tweet at me to tell me I kick ass.